BY Terence Trouillot in Opinion | 29 DEC 20

Stories We Missed in 2020: Lin May Saeed's Nonhuman Animals

At the Clark Institute, the artist's first museum solo show, which explored human-animal relations, almost never happened 

BY Terence Trouillot in Opinion | 29 DEC 20

Lin May Saeed’s first solo museum exhibition almost never happened. The shipment of her works from her studio in Berlin to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown just barely met the deadline before restrictions were enacted on international freightage in response to COVID-19. Housed in the sleek, Tadao Ando-designed Lunder Center at Stone Hill – just a short walk from the Clark’s main building – ‘Arrival of the Animals’ surveyed Saeed’s witty allegorical drawings on paper and sculptures in polystyrene, bronze and steel that focus exclusively on the lives and rights of ‘nonhuman animals’, a rather ungainly term used in animal studies to critique anthropocentrism.

Lin May Saeed, Noel, 2019
Lin May Saeed, Noel, 2019, charcoal on brown paper, 24.1 × 34 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt and Clark Art Institute, Williamstown

Curated by Robert Wiesenberger, the exhibition opened with a gallery featuring a selection of fauna-themed drawings and prints from the Clark’s collection of European art, including Rosa Bonheur’s 19th-century Studies of a Lioness, Eugène Delacroix’s Studies of a Crouching Tiger (1810–63) and Albrecht Dürer’s Saint Jerome in his Cell (1511) – a woodcut depicting the saint working at his desk with a lion seated beside him. This introduction served not only as a nod to the Clark’s affinity for art depicting nonhuman animals (Sterling Clark, the museum’s co-founder, was an avid equestrian and collected many prints of horses), but also a foil for Saeed’s inquiry into European and non-Western approaches to narratives concerning the subjugation and autonomy of animals. 

Lin May Saeed, Panther Relief, 2017
Lin May Saeed, Panther Relief, 2017, polystyrene foam, acrylic paint, wood, 112 × 184.1 × 10.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Nicolas Krupp, Basel and Clark Art Institute, Williamstown

In Seven Sleepers (2020), the German-Iraqi artist restaged the Islamo-Christian allegory of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus in a site-specific installation of polystyrene sculptures. According to legend, a group of Christians fled to a cave to avoid persecution by the Roman Emperor Decius in 250 CE. Hundreds of years later, they emerged from the cave to find that Christianity had become the state religion. There are two variants of the tale: one in which a dog is posted outside the cave as a guard; another in which it lives in the cave with the men. In Saeed’s version, the dog is an equal member of the party (one of the seven), sitting alongside the Christian men, a sweet scene that clearly illustrates the artist’s post-humanism.

While such works in the show might come across as cute – appealing to those who would enjoy Saeed’s playful polemics but not hesitate to have a steak dinner afterwards – its lightness of touch belies the more disturbing connotations of its material: polystyrene is a nondegradable, toxic, synthetic product that threatens marine life in oceans and wildlife in other natural habitats.

Lin May Saeed, Pangolin, 2020
Lin may Saeed, Pangolin, 2020, polystyrene foam, steel, plaster, acrylic paint, wood, overall: 135.9 × 105.1 × 35.9 cm. pangolin: 57.1 × 104.1 × 28.9 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt and Clark Art institute, Williamstown; photography: Thomas Clark

The show’s most prescient piece was unintentionally so: Pangolin (2020), a polystyrene sculpture of the anteater relative that scientists believe may have spread COVID-19 to humans, was completed before the origins of the pandemic were widely known. At the Clark in October, it seemed to symbolize human beings’ own complicity in the prevalence of zoonotic viruses, which are common in wild-animal markets, including the one in Wuhan that sold pangolins. In Saeed’s stoic monument, the endangered species seems oblivious to the pandemic’s human cost – a solemn reminder that nonhuman animals will go on living their lives peacefully without us, as evidenced by the wildlife that ventured into desolate ports and abandoned streets during lockdown. 

Although the Clark reopened to the public in July, many folks may not have made the pilgrimage to the Berkshires during this trying year. I was lucky enough to see the show just weeks before it closed at the end of October, when the fright of the pandemic seemed briefly to lull. While this lack of spectators may have seemed fitting for an exhibition that decentred the solipsistic universe of human beings, ‘Arrival of the Animals’ deserved to be seen by more human-animals, impelling them to reflect on how we treat all living beings. 

Main image: Lin May Saeed, Seven Sleepers, 2020, polystyrene foam, acrylic paint, steel, jute, fabric, paper, plants, glass, water, cotton cord, wood, cardboard, 84 5/8 × 177 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Clark Art Institute, Williamstown; photography: Thomas Clark

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.